Hassan Gouled Aptidon, First President Of Djibouti

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who became Djibouti's first leader after it achieved independence from French rule and served as a mediator among warring neighbors in the Horn of Africa, died Nov. 21 at his home in the capital city of Djibouti.

Mr. Gouled, formerly one of the world's longest-serving heads of state, was believed to be 90, more than twice the average Djiboutian's life expectancy. No cause of death was reported, but he had been increasingly ill since he left the presidency in 1999 after 22 years in power.

In recent years, Djibouti has become a counterterrorism staging ground for the forces of U.S. allies. Its chief strategic importance is its deep-water port at the juncture of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Otherwise it remains as it was for much of Mr. Gouled's reign -- an arid country of 800,000 people steeped in poverty and illiteracy. The Washington Post once described Djibouti as "a Graham Greene setting replete with ceiling fans, blistering paint and tired prostitutes."

Mr. Gouled, who had been active in the independence movement, was credited with maintaining stability in a region that long faced divisions among rival clans. For some, Djibouti under his rule was an oasis for refugees from drought and political crises in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

Perhaps Mr. Gouled's greatest foray into diplomacy was his strong advocacy of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a multi-nation group formed in the mid-1980s to combat drought that went on to tackle subregional economic and political development.

Mr. Gouled became chairman of IGAD, whose secretariat is in Djibouti, and used his authority to become a regional peace broker. His efforts were credited with helping renew diplomatic ties between Ethiopia and Somalia, however tenuously.

David Shinn, a former State Department director for East African affairs, said Mr. Gouled "kept Djibouti out of regional war in Africa, and that's more than you can say for any other leader in that area."

Djibouti is composed predominantly of the Issa and Afar sects. Mr. Gouled, who belonged to the former and implemented one-party rule, nevertheless accommodated Afars by bringing many into his Cabinet.

When an Afar-led civil war broke out in 1991, he reached an accord with the rebel group to allow multiparty elections, even if he permitted only four opposition groups to participate. Mr. Gouled won another six-year term in office, his last.

Succeeded in a popular election by Ismail Omar Guelleh, the current president, Mr. Gouled noted the transition as a sign of progress. "My heart is full of pride in contemplating my reconciled nation, its memory reconstituted and its history freed of resentments," he said.

Mr. Gouled was believed to have been born in 1916 in what was then called French Somaliland (now Djibouti). The son of a village elder, he was a contractor before entering politics.

For a dozen years, he was a Paris representative of French Somaliland and became a devotee of French President Charles de Gaulle. After returning home in 1963, he spent four years as education minister.

His emergence as an independence advocate began with the banning of his political party in 1967. As leader of an umbrella group of dissident Issas and Afars, he declared an intention to seek freedom "with France, not against it." This made him, in French eyes, a widely acceptable choice to lead the new Republic of Djibouti.

During his first year as president, the ascetic, austere Mr. Gouled made the wildly unpopular attempt to ban khat, the chewable leaf that acts as a mild narcotic and is enjoyed by most Djiboutians. The ensuing fracas nearly brought down his fledgling government, and he never tried the prohibition again.

Mr. Gouled's first wife, Aicha Bogoreh, who was known for work in charity and women's rights, died in 2001. He later remarried.

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